When I was plugging my SURVIVING ON THE STREETS book (my book about homelessness) back in 2001, my publisher set me up with about 30 interviews with radio stations all across the country (and one in Canada). And that was like a fantasy come true. Because all my life I had watched the movie stars and rock stars and famous authors going on their media tours to plug their latest product (“thumping the tub” as Marlon Brando famously put it). And now I was one of them doing it myself. Albeit on a smaller scale. Most of the radio stations were smaller markets like St. Louis. So it wasn’t like I was doing Howard Stern or the Johnny Carson Show. But still it was a kick.
Though I came to dread doing them. For a number of reasons. Number one I was always nervous as shit, stage-fright and all that. The other thing was, I did the interviews over the phone, and mostly in the morning, and often very EARLY in the morning, due to the different time zones. I was living in my office at the time, and the phone would usually wake me up from a sound sleep. Often it was still dark outside. It was the producer of the radio show. And I’d have like 5 minutes to fix up a quick cup of coffee, and then I’d be on the air. Still half-asleep. And babbling off the top of my head to thousands of people out there in radioland. So most of the interviews weren’t very good. And to tell you the truth, I much prefer being the interviewER. It’s a lot easier to come up with questions than it is to come up with answers.
The other thing about the interviews that was a pain in the ass: I’d have to figure out where the D.J. was coming from on the fly. And try to adjust my answers to their schtick. For example, some of them were “shock jock” types, and they were just using me as fodder for their dumb jokes. So it was pointless to try and have a serious conversation. While others of them had serious attitudes about the homeless issue. Considered the homeless a blight on their cities, just a bunch of smelly bums and drug addicts. So they wanted to use me as an excuse to do their axe-grinding. And then there were the super-serious and sincere bleeding-heart liberal types, who wanted to use me to publicly sob and weep over the plight of the homeless. And then ask me about my big and grand solutions to this pressing social problem. Something I usually wasn’t very good at articulating at 5 in the morning.
So it was pretty much of a mess. But at least it sold a couple of books. And that’s show business I guess. I’ll be right back right after this important message. . . .
This was the cover to my collection of comics (published by Loompanics 1990). But what annoys me to this day every time I see the cover. See the yellow panel at the bottom of the page?? That should have been colored white. Whoever designed the cover art for my book? They got it wrong. It annoys me to this day, every time I see it decades later.
Then, for my next cover, they screwed it up AGAIN. They inexplicably colored the straps of my backpack as if I was wearing a sleeve-less shirt. And if it wasn’t bad enough that they colored my work boots a bright red (I’m a dumpster-diver, not a CLOWN, dude!), they colored the cuffs of my pants as if they were part of my boots!! . .. And so now, every time I come across that cover over the last 30 years, that’s ALWAYS the first thing I think of.
So for my third cover, I figured: Fuck it. Black-and-white, baby. Let’s see them screw THAT up .
It’s 3 in the afternoon and I just woke up. Hung over beyond belief. Haven’t even washed up yet (restrooms on the campus closed for weekend). Trying to choke down a 2 dollar McDonald’s hamburger and get some life-saving coffee in me. When I hear those 4 words I dread.
“Are you Ace Backwords?”
He’s a young guy, early 20s. “I read your book in the library. It practically saved my life.”
He’s standing over me talking away. Nice guy. And I’m flattered. Soft-spoken (thankfully). But I can barely hear him. And I can barely follow what he’s saying. And I’m in no shape for socializing. Plus I’m embarrassed. Whatever high opinion he had of me from reading my book is now probably slightly lowered. I tell him I really can’t talk right now. But he starts telling me a story about something that happened to him in People’s Park the other day. Then he asks if he can buy me anything. “I owe you one,” he says. “I’m fine,” I says. After a bit more awkward exchanges he leaves with a big smile on his face.
Was just checking the amazon page for my SURVIVING ON THE STREETS book and I happened to notice this one sour review from some brainy guy named Christopher Debraine. Which is just like me. 20 good reviews and I’ll always notice the one bad review. Ha ha. Anyways, ole Chris takes me to task for not offering enough savvy advice about how to deal with the court system and tickets and the legal aspects of homelessness.
“Do NOT buy this book if you are looking for a how-to, or a manual, or even a lot of advice. What you get here is a collection of personal anecdotes(which are interesting and amusing in their own right), personal opinion and politics (which are less interesting, and sometimes downright obtuse), and a scattered handful of advice. You get more from forming your own opinions after reading about his experiences than you do from his actual advice. also, he tends to gloss over things you’d think were important, such as handling vagrancy tickets. how did ace overcome his tickets? he “jammed the machine with a blizzard of paperwork, and they forgot about it.” … yeah. Anyway, the sad fact is that not many books such as this exist, mainly because the kind of people who end up on the streets either never get their life together enough to write something (let alone get published), or have no interest in helping other people should they suffer the same fate. In summary: interesting and amusing, but NOT informative.”
* * *
The anecdote he was referring to was the time when the judge said he wouldn’t fine me if I pleaded guilty to this pot ticket, I’d just have to go to this Drug Education class, but then it turned out the class cost hundreds of dollars to sign up for (bastard!) but I did manage to beat the ticket by signing up for the class and then blowing it off (so I didn’t have to pay money or have a warrant go out for my arrest). And I was smug about how I weaseled my way out of that one. So fuck Christopher and his sneering comment. (Chris is probably one of those guys who gets lots of tickets and we could all learn from his experiences by learning what NOT to do).
But it did make me wonder if it was a glaring omission to have not delved more deeply into that aspect of the homelessness experience. I didn’t for several reason:
1.) I myself, rarely got tickets, so I didn’t have many personal experiences to share. But that’s the point of my book. If you do it right, and follow a few basic common sense rules, you WON’T get jammed up by the courts. And that’s the BEST way to deal with it.
2.) The laws pertaining to homelessness vary so much from city-to-city and state-to-state — as well as how the courts apply those laws. So the advice I give you for how to deal with it in Berkeley, might be the exact WRONG advice for how to deal with it in Chicago.
I guess if I could give one all-purpose bit of advice it’s: DON’T ANTAGONIZE THE COPS. If you get on their bad side they can surely make your life miserable. And they can usually even run you out of town if they want to, and there’s not a lot you can do about it.
The other advice is: If you’re getting a lot of tickets, it may be because you’re doing it wrong, and you might want to re-assess how you’re operating.
That said, there are basically three ways you can deal with your homeless-related tickets:
1.) Go to court and either pay the fine or sign of for community service (which is what I usually did, spending a week or two picking up cigarette butts in the park.
2.) Just blow off your tickets (which is how most street people deal with them). Eventually, they’ll turn into Warrants For Your Arrest. And eventually the cops will probably arrest you. And you can spend a week or two sitting on your ass in jail. And that usually clears the ticket. Or:
3.) You can fight your ticket in court. Plead not guilty to the ticket, and then they’ll set a court date for you to state your case. Hate Man used to do this all the time. And he almost always prevailed. Mainly because the cop who gave you the ticket usually doesn’t have the time to show up in court over such a trivial matter, and since the cop can’t give his side of the story, the judge dismisses the ticket. The down-side is, if you take it to court and LOSE, the judge will usually give you a stiffer penalty than if you had pleaded guilty, to punish you for wasting the courts time . . . Nonetheless, if you have a good understanding of how the law works, and feel you have a strong case (and having the advice of a lawyer also helps) you might want to consider this option.
Human beings are a territorial creature by nature. And homeless street people are no exception. The problem is that street people don’t have any personal territory to call their own. They live in the public spaces after all. You indoor people have the walls of your houses and the fences around your yards to clearly delineate your personal territory. But no such line exists for street people. So it’s a source of constant problems.
But there is a certain protocol that most street people respect. For example if some guy has been sleeping in a particular doorway every night, most (but alas not all) of the street people on the scene will respect that that’s his personal campsite. And not camp there. And a similar protocol governs hangout spots. If somebody hangs out at the same spot on the sidewalk every day, that’s generally accepted as their spot. Though it can get a little hazy. Somebody might consider a favorite panhandling spot to be their personal spot. But someone else might consider it first-come-first -served and they got there first so now it’s their spot. So like I said the lines are not clearly drawn. But these conflicts are usually resolved in a calm and reasonable manner; i.e. the one who is bigger and stronger and more vicious and capable of beating the other person’s ass usually prevails.
Which brings me to my latest conflict. There’s a homeless street person who’s been hanging out on the Berkeley campus for the last 20 years. And he’s got his own personal hangout spot (and I respect his space). And I’ve got my own personal hangout spot (and he respects my space). And we’ve coexisted all these years with no problems. Until recently.
Now I have a favorite hangout spot on the campus that I’ve been using for years. I usually only use it in the evening when that area is mostly deserted. And it’s a great spot. It’s secluded. It has an awning to protect me from the rain. And best of all it has an outlet where I can charge my cellphone. But that was also the source of this recent conflict.
It turns out about 6 months ago this guy got a laptop. So now he’s been eyeballing my hangout spot — and that outlet — with serious intent, as a spot where he can plug in his laptop. And whaddaya’ know, I show up one night and there he is flopped out at my hangout spot with his laptop plugged into the outlet. I figure it’s probably just a one-night thing. So I just let it slide and go off and find another hangout spot.
But whaddaya’ know? The next night there he is AGAIN at my hangout spot. So I go up to him and explain to him, in a very reasonable voice, that I’ve been using this hangout spot for many years, and it’s a very valuable spot to me, and there’s simply no room for two bums at this spot. He nods his head in agreement and seems to understand.
But whaddaya’ know? The third night there he is AGAIN hanging out at my hangout spot.
So now I’m realizing this guy is planning to make this HIS permanent hangout spot. And this guy is like the classic ne’er-do-well layabout. Once he attaches himself to a hangout spot he’s there ALL the time. He’s basically spent the last 20 years doing nothing but laying around, taking up space. Which is fine — everyone in this life is on the level that they’re on. But the problem is, now he is taking up MY space.
So the next night I’m ready for him. I’m sort of hiding around the corner. And when I hear him coming I rush over to the spot right before he gets there, and say to him: “This is MY hangout spot. And there’s not room for TWO! Now GO away and STAY away!!”
He turns on his heels and leaves. And apparently he got the message. Because for the next 6 months peace and harmony reigned in the world of Ace Backwords.
Until the other night. When I showed up at my hangout spot. And whaddaya’ know? There he is again flopped out at my hangout spot. He’s lying on his back on his matting with his leg crossed, and all of his stuff dumped out around him, and his laptop plugged into the outlet. And he’s like some guy leisurely enjoying a swell evening in the comfort of his personal living room.
I look down at him, glaring at him, not saying anything. He looks up at me and says cheerfully “How are ya’ doin’?”
“How are YOU doing!” I said with a sharp edge in my voice.
“I’m doin’ just fine,” he said. “How are you doin’?”
I didn’t say anything for a couple of beats. Just continued to glare at him. And then I turned and stomped off. And I hoped he got the message and it refreshed his memory about our previous confrontation 6 months ago.
But then the next night? Whaddaya’ know? There he is AGAIN.
So now I’m realizing I have no choice. I either take action. Or else my favorite hangout spot is now his favorite hangout spot.
So I said to him: “Dude, this is MY hangout spot.”
“I realize that,” he said.
“Well if you realize that then why are you here hanging out here at my hangout spot??”
“Well let me explain,” he said.
“No. Let me explain first and you can explain second,” I said. “The next time I catch you at my hangout spot, I am going to go to your hangout spot when you’re not there. And I am going to dump all your stuff into the creek. Do you understand me?”
“I hear you,” he said.
And I turned on my heels and stomped out of there.
And I hope he DID understand me. Because I WILL do it.
I distinctly remember where I was on 9-11. My Surviving on the Streets book had just been published the day before. And I would turn 45 on the day after. I considered my Street book one of the best things I had produced. So I felt I was on top of my game back then. With new peaks yet to come.
And the Telegraph Street Calendar was a hit that year, too. It was the one with Hate Man and Hatred on the cover. It sold well. And it recaptured a bit of the zany, fun-loving spirit of the Telegraph Avenue in the early ’90s. So that was looking up, too.
Everything I touched worked. And I’d been doing daily kundalini yoga meditation for 7 years years. With no drugs or alcohol. So I was sharp as a tack, both physically and spiritually. It even seemed like I was finally resolving some of the demons that had bedeviled me all my life. And I was actually turning into the person that I had always wanted to be. So I really felt like I was on a roll. And I had every reason to believe things would just keep getting better and better.
And my little sister, at age 42, had managed to finally have her first child. So it was a new beginning for her. So that’s what I always remember about that period of 9-ll. The birth of my sister’s baby, and the birth of my “Surviving On the Streets” book. It seemed like things were really looking up on all fronts. . .
Of course I didn’t know at the time — one rarely does know at the time — that this would in fact be my peak. And it would pretty much be all downhill from this point onward. And maybe not just for me. But for America, too.
On this date in 2007 I was just on the verge of getting kicked out of this office building that I had been secretly living in for 9 years. The Koerber Building on University Avenue. It had been a great run. I had been paying $125 a month to rent out this little 6-foot-by-13-foot office. It was about the size of a big walk-in closet. But it was ideal for my purposes. It had a high ceiling. So I could stack boxes with all my stuff against the walls. And, best of all, it had a bunk-bed that I could sleep in. And it was hidden in the back of the building. So almost nobody even noticed that I was there.
That 9-year run was a productive period for me. I produced some of my best work. I wrote my SURVIVING ON THE STREETS book. And the first drafts of ACID HEROES. I co-published the last 6 issues of the TELEGRAPH STREET CALENDAR. And I recorded hundreds of hours of original music on my mighty Fostex four-track recorder. Among many other projects.
And then a new owner bought the building in 2006. He immediately sent out a letter to all the tenants telling us how much he looked forward to working with all of us. Then he started throwing us out, one by one. He was renovating the building floor-by-floor starting with the top floor. So he kicked all the tenants in the top floor out first, and worked his way down from there. I was on the second floor (the last floor with tenants). So I was among the last to go. The last man standing. For that last year I pretty much had the whole building to myself. Which was a good deal for $125 a month.
But it was also depressing. The building had once been this dynamic place, bustling with creative and hard-working people. And then I watched as it gradually was reduced to this dark, empty shell.
And it was a metaphor for my life during that period. Everything seemed like it was dying. At the same time, Cody’s Books (my main hang-out), also went out of business. And that once-dynamic scene was replaced by a boarded-up, burned-out, shell of a building.
My main publisher, Loompanics, also went out of business during that period. So it was like, “Three strikes and I’m out.” I remember I kept thinking back then: “”Everything in my life is CONTRACTING.”
On August 1, 2007, I packed up all my stuff into a storage locker, handed in my keys, and left the Koerber building for the last time. I had turned 50. So it was one of those moments when you knew quite clearly that one part of your life was ending, and another part of my life was beginning.
Up to that point, my life, and my artistic career, had pretty much been on a constant upward spiral. But now it was like the arrow had pointed downward. And everything kept getting worse and worse. And that was pretty much how it would go for the next 10 years. And, well, here I am.
I’m having another weird day. In a seemingly endless series of weird days. . .
This afternoon I was sitting in McDonald’s pounding one of those one dollar large coffees. Which is an excellent deal, by the way. This woman sidles up to me. “Are you Ace Backwords? Would you sign a copy of your book for me? You’re a brilliant writer.”
She pulls out a copy of my SURVIVING ON THE STREETS book from her backpack. . . I have no idea how she recognized me sitting there in McDonald’s. Or how long she’d been walking around with a copy of my book in her backpack looking for me. Of course I’m flattered. But it’s a weird, complex scene to have to factor before I drink my first cup of coffee of the day.
Then I go to People’s Park. There’s this insane lunatic named Alex — he’s COMPLETELY crazy — and for some reason he’s decided that he hates my guts. Lately, whenever I sit down somewhere in the Park, he immediately shows up and sits directly across from me. Glaring at me with his insane, lunatic eyes. He’s one of those guys just seething with rage. Today he keeps screaming at me: “QUIT BOTHERING ME!! QUIT BOTHERING!!” Which is an odd request considering he’s the one that’s constantly approaching me. To further illustrate his point, he starts violently jabbing this metal stick into the dirt over and over, in simulation of a knife that he’d like to jab into my chest. Like I said. He’s completely nuts. If you saw Alex, he looks exactly like he’s straight out of Central Casting for the role of lunatic. It’s a role he was born to play.
So that’s disconcerting. And yet another weird, complex scene that I have to factor. . . But at least I’ve gotten my coffee in my by this point, so I’m ready for action.
But it reminded me of something I said to one of my Facebook friends yesterday. She told me that she thought I had “a brilliant mind.” Which is nice. But I told her in all honesty: “Over the years I’ve had so many people tell me I’m brilliant. And so many people tell me I’m an idiot. I’ve given up trying to keep track one way or the other.”
This life is a mixed bag of nuts, ain’t it? The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.